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Beat Breakdown: UCLA men’s volleyball writers discuss what went wrong in MPSF tournament loss

Coach John Speraw talks to his team during the MPSF finals against Grand Canyon. The Bruins fell short of repeating as conference champions after dropping a five-set contest to the Lopes on Saturday. (Lex Wang/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Ira Gorawara, Anthony Aroyan, Connor Dullinger, and Amelie Ionescu

April 26, 2024 8:55 p.m.

No. 1 seed UCLA men’s volleyball (23-5, 11-1 MPSF) dropped its conference title match to No. 2 seed Grand Canyon (25-4, 10-2) on Saturday at the Galen Center. With the five-set loss, coach John Speraw’s unit surrendered its chance of unfurling the MPSF championship banner for the second consecutive year. The Daily Bruin Sports men’s volleyball beat delivers its foremost takeaways from the title showpiece.

Ira Gorawara
Assistant Sports editor
Takeaway: Scant reliance on the titan

A point away from hoisting the championship banner in last year’s conference finale, Alex Knight charged toward the net, vaulting to launch the final kill.

The ball ricocheted off the net, returning to the redshirt senior outside hitter’s arms and directly toward his setter.

Sophomore Andrew Rowan – who recognized Ido David on his periphery – deftly arced the ball behind his head and executed a bullseye pass behind to the junior outside hitter/opposite.

David reared his hands back before launching them upward to hammer the ball over the net.

Three Stanford defenders leaped desperately, scrambling to return the ball. The ball eluded their grasp, and whistles blew to mark the conclusion of the 2023 MPSF finals.

David crouched and clenched his fist as a roar erupted from his throat in declaration of UCLA’s first conference win in 17 years.

He drilled the final tally – and assisted in the three leading up to it. A triple-stuffy alongside Knight and former middle blocker J.R. Norris IV, then consecutive serves that set up Norris’s back-to-back kills.

David was – and is – just that: Coach John Speraw’s all-round linchpin. But that stature hasn’t received its justice this year. Or in last week’s unmemorable conference tournament.

He was a First Team All-American, First Team All-MPSF and part of last season’s NCAA All-Tournament team after cementing five matches of 20-plus kills – including 23 in the national championship bout – and pouched 38 aces.

But this year, David appeared in 24 fewer sets so far than he did last – including just one frame in three of the last eight regular season games – and didn’t start in the MSPF semifinal or final.

When a figure embodies the potential to fortify their team’s arsenal – and offer it hardware while at it – confining them to the bench feels incongruous.

UCLA has a three-game journey to reclaim its hardware, and with David stowed away in the truck, a national title might remain in the team’s rearview.

(Zimo Li/Daily Bruin)
Outside hitter/opposite Ido David soars to hammer down a kill. The junior is reigning First Team All-American and First Team All-MPSF. (Zimo Li/Daily Bruin)

Anthony Aroyan
Daily Bruin staff
Takeaway: Just a bad night

Rocky Balboa – perhaps the greatest fictional athlete ever put to the silver screen – once said that winning is not about how hard you hit, but how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.

The Bruins got hit hard in the conference finals.

But they have an opportunity for something bigger.

No. 1 seed UCLA men’s volleyball’s bitter ending to its MPSF tournament run highlighted the holes present in this year’s iteration of Speraw’s squad. The lack of a consistent libero and struggles meshing with last year’s standout players, namely David and Knight, are partly to blame for the loss.

In the final, the team hit for a .288 hitting percentage – well below its .370 season average – to mark its second-lowest clip this season. The Bruins also committed 24 attack errors, tying their highest mark of the season. In comparison, the Lopes struck at a .361 clip and recorded 16 attacking errors before hoisting their inaugural MPSF title.

Speraw has emphasized serving as an important piece of UCLA’s offensive strategy – another area that fell short of expectations Saturday. The team tallied just five service aces on the night, its lowest mark since March 2.

While Saturday’s result exposed the team’s shortcomings, positives were obscured in the shadows. Rowan tallied 52 assists, his fourth-highest total this season. Sophomore outside hitter Zach Rama exhibited his offensive prowess, leading the Bruins with 14 kills and a .550 clip.

In the first film, Rocky lost.

It wasn’t until the sequel when he lifted the heavyweight championship belt and resuscitated from defeat.

(Eden Yu/Daily Bruin staff)
Senior outside hitter Ethan Champlin prepares to serve the ball. Poor performance from the line plagued the Bruins in the MPSF finale as they registered 23 service errors. (Eden Yu/Daily Bruin staff)

Connor Dullinger
Daily Bruin contributor
Takeaway: Missteps are stepping stones

Geoffrey Chaucer is widely regarded as the “father of English literature.”

He’s recognized for coining the phrase “all good things must come to an end.”

The Bruins saw their fortune – one that rode on a 12-game winning streak – run dry in the final moments of the conference tournament.

UCLA’s defeat in the MPSF finals impeded the squad’s conference-title rerun. The final marked the fourth time this season that UCLA fell in a five-set contest.

The chief pitfall of the Bruins’ efforts in the finale came behind the service line.

With aggressive serving being integral to the squad’s success this season, UCLA’s servers were ousted in the efficiency department. The Bruins finished the match with 23 service errors and five aces – 10 more errors than their foes and half as many aces.

While Chaucer articulated that everything must come to an end, it was Winston Churchill who noted that “failure is not fatal.”

UCLA has proven its resilience time and time again this season, as it has yet to drop two consecutive matches. And with the team’s bench’s depth proving an ingredient to the winning mixture – Speraw knows what to fall back on.

UCLA has had its fair share of adversity this season – and it has rescued itself on each occasion.

Will this trend continue into the future?

This conjecture will be tested in Long Beach.

(Zimo Li/Daily Bruin)
Redshirt senior Alex Knight crouches to receive the ball. The outside hitter has assumed the libero’s mantle this season for UCLA. (Zimo Li/Daily Bruin)

Amelie Ionescu
Daily Bruin senior staff
Takeaway: Why was six afraid of seven?

Seven is a lucky number – seven wonders of the world, seven colors of the rainbow and, typically, seven players in a volleyball lineup.

Seven is such a fascinating number, in fact, that the ancient Greeks used to celebrate it as one of perfection.

Earlier this season, Speraw settled for the number eight.

Why he did so may have been a myriad of reasons – Knight is the best at serve receive on the team, no libero stands out, eight is still a lucky number in Chinese culture. But the fact that he had to do so has cost him five games – including the MPSF championship – and might cost him a back-to-back NCAA victory.

Every loss, bar the one at Long Beach State, has been close.

UCLA doesn’t struggle to top charts in any other category. Rowan and McHenry are arguably the best in the country at their respective positions, First Team All-American in David as a backup opposite leaves that position full of not only talent but depth, and senior Ethan Champlin is conceivably the second-best outside hitter in the nation after UC Irvine’s Hilir Henno.

No matter who Speraw puts out at libero, the duo will likely be the weakest in the semifinal and potential final matchup.

If a pin has an off day, Rama or a different replacement will step in. If McHenry or Rowan has an off day, they’re still NCAA-championship worthy. But if Knight and his passing counterpart aren’t working properly, all bets are off.

Since the beginning, Speraw has had a libero problem. And despite finding a feasible solution, May is here.

There are six players on the court at any given time.

But for the Bruins it will be the seventh, or perhaps eighth, that will secure their fate.

 

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Ira Gorawara | Sports editor
Gorawara is the 2024-2025 Sports editor on the football, men’s basketball and NIL beats and a Copy contributor. She was previously an assistant Sports editor on the men’s volleyball, men’s tennis, women’s volleyball and rowing beats and a contributor on the men’s volleyball and rowing beats. She is a rising third-year economics and communication student minoring in professional writing from Hong Kong.
Gorawara is the 2024-2025 Sports editor on the football, men’s basketball and NIL beats and a Copy contributor. She was previously an assistant Sports editor on the men’s volleyball, men’s tennis, women’s volleyball and rowing beats and a contributor on the men’s volleyball and rowing beats. She is a rising third-year economics and communication student minoring in professional writing from Hong Kong.
Amelie Ionescu | Sports senior staff
Ionescu was previously an assistant Sports editor on the men's volleyball, women's volleyball, swim and dive and rowing beats, and a contributor on the women's tennis beat.
Ionescu was previously an assistant Sports editor on the men's volleyball, women's volleyball, swim and dive and rowing beats, and a contributor on the women's tennis beat.
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